Durham at 5:15 in the morning just after the clocks have been pushed forward is not exactly a time for a sunrise service. It was billed as a bonfire and baptism and confirmation and communion service, all rolled into one and it lived up to its billing. The service lasted a good 1:45, and nobody was eager to leave. The service began in utter darkness in the cloister….then the bonfire was lit and the choir and the clergy processed to the middle of the lawn in the midst of the cloister. The Easter vigil began with a recitation of the basic salvation history story, the basic Biblical story— creation, fall, the beginning of redemption in the Exodus, the imagery of passing through the sea is seen as foreshadowing the latter day Jonah who after three days emerged from the darkness of the belly of the deep, namely death, having safely passed through death unto the far shore of life. This imagery lingered as we processed into a pitch dark cathedral for the baptisms, and what a liturgy that was— the candidates were asked “Do you reject the devil and all rebellion against God? Do you renounce the deceit and corruption of evil? Do you repent of the sins that separate us from God and neighbor? Romans 6 is the operative text, and being buried in baptism is the focal image. Each candidate has a large quantity of water poured on their heads from the font three times (in the name of each member of the Trinity) using a very large seashell (another image of the resurrection used since the early medieval period). The candidates are then asked just before the baptism Do you turn to Christ as saviour? Do you submit to Christ as Lord? Do you come to Christ, the way, the truth, the life?”
The baptismal font is surrrounded by the whole congregation supporting the baptismal candidates, and then the confirmation candidates as well. Then we process through the cathedral, singing many of the expected Easter hymns. Christos anesti (Christ is risen), and when we get to that part of the service, all heaven breaks loose. I must admit I had never seen a bishop blow a whistle, or deacon beat a frying pan in the pulpit, or in general all the clergy make a gigantic holy racket at the announcement that ‘up from the grave he arose…’ Anyone who says a high church worship service is boring and dull is either totally lacking in imagination or deaf, dumb, and blind. The choir composed of children and adults, sing up into the tower of the mighty cathedral “Human love is unavailing/Counterweight to sin and strife/Love of God alone can hold us/ On the way that leads to life.”
The bishop of Jarrow’s sermon consists of one long story— the true story of an artist named Berens who lived in NYC 150 or so years ago and longed to paint a masterpiece one day. He was part of an artistic community, and one day a member of that community, named Ruth, was struck down with a bad case of pneumonia. Her best friend Dawn, also an artist was deeply distressed, and all the more so when Ruth told her that when the ten leaves on the vine outside her window were all gone, she would die. Day after day the wind blew and one by one the leaves fell off. Dawn had alerted the community to pray for Ruth, but she seemed to have no will left to live. One morning Dawn opened the curtain of the window with some trepidation and saw that miraculously one ivy leaf still seemed to cling to the column outside the window. From this Ruth took hope, and said. I have resolved that if that leaf can hang on to or cling to life, so should I. And from that day forward she began to get well.
Sometime later, her friend Dawn gently told her that their friend Mr. Berens had died.
“But he was in good health. How did he die?”
“I have to tell you,” said Dawn “that he fell from a tall ladder outside your second story hospital window. You see that last leaf was actually one he had painted there, having heard of your prediction that you would die when all the leaves were gone.”
And so it was that one man did paint his masterpiece, dying in the process so that another could live.
I left from the service at 7ish in the morning, and it had turned freezing cold outside. No matter. I could hear the words of the first disciples on Easter say “did not our hearts burn within us when he broke bread with us and then vanished”. Christ is risen indeed. Alleluia.